Written By: Travis Harrington | Photos Courtesy of SimmonsSeaSkiff.com
For many residents or frequenters of coastal plain towns throughout North Carolina, there is something incredibly comforting and remarkable about the way that the surrounding bodies of water intertwine with the land. They grow into each other, but they never seem to impose. Being a Wilmington native, the quasi-peninsular manner in which the city nestles between the Cape Fear river and and the sound side of the Atlantic manifested a spirit of seabound wonder within me from a young age. An abundance of my earliest childhood memories involved gazing out into these bodies of water while whisking over them in my father’s jon boat. When I come home now, it still amazes me to have the ability to go from standing along the riverfront downtown to being ankle‐deep in the ocean in hardly twenty minutes. Wilmington, and a lot of these other places, are very easily written off exclusively as beach communities, and while that is a large component of what defines these areas, it sincerely overlooks the importance of what allows these conditions to exist—the water! The way that the people of these communities have interacted with the water throughout time has formed the basis of the cultural foundation for these communities, and continues still to do so.
Obviously, this “interaction” refers to people who have spent time amid the water sailing in boats. As with any facet of exploration, its importance grew from necessity. When European explorer Giovanni da Verrazano allegedly first observed the Wilmington area in the 16th century, he did so by ship—and, for centuries prior, various Native American communities spent time learning and understanding the complex water systems through generations of commute and fishing. Throughout European colonization (and the resulting establishment of our country), the Cape Fear river, with Wilmington at its mouth, served as an incredibly important route for supply and trade. Even during the civil war, it served as the main port for the confederacy and allowed for Blockade Runner ships to bring the necessary troop provisions further inland. In other times of conflict, the Wilmington area retained similar economic boon, finding itself to be the site of the most productive Liberty ship building yard during the Second World War.
As time has progressed though, the paradigm of boats as being largely commercial has been far surpassed by recreational enjoyment. Driving through local neighborhoods, it seems as natural for a trailer and boat to sit idle in a driveway as a car. To most coastal North Carolinians, a boat is a status symbol—not just in the sense of affluence, but as a token of being identified as an individual who recognizes and appreciates the aspect of this area that makes it so special. And, it is interesting how this regional pride and identity transfers over even to the designs of these boats themselves. I recently had the pleasure of talking to John Olsen, the head instructor of the boat manufacture and maintenance course at CFCC, about what makes a North Carolina boat exactly that. The point he made was simple: function follows form. Most boats of the area are characterized by high bows and large flares, necessary to traverse the choppy coastal waters.
Perhaps one of the most important examples of these boats, made right in the Myrtle Grove Sound, was the wonderful Simmons Sea Skiffs. From the late 1940’s to the early 1970’s, Tom Simmons built what are still considered some of the finest fishing skiffs in coastal North Carolina. Simmons started his career as a woodworker and was first employed as a carpenter at a local chemical plant. Through the Second World War, he held a job as a patternmaker for Wilmington Shipyard as Wilmington spiked up the production of Liberty ships. After the war, Simmons returned to Myrtle Grove Sound to make a living building furniture and cabinets, and led to building small lake boats on the side as well. His reputation as a master woodworker grew and attracted a local commercial fisherman named Norman Piner. Piner came to Simmons in need of a newly designed boat that could set way off the beach and be useful for fishing mullet with a seine. Simmons built exactly what Piner needed, and what other fisherman needed also. The boat stood above all others and eventually evolved into the Simmons Sea Skiff of today. The legacy he has sustained, was done so through hard work in creating a vessel that was not only absolutely practical, but extremely affordable as well.
It goes to show, though boats have meant many different things throughout our communities history, the culture surrounding them still hangs in a dynamic balance of their modern implications and the legacies of their previous ones. Of the twelve states whose official symbols include boats, North Carolina is one of only four who honor a general construction-type rather than a specific vessel. This shows that the appreciation of these boats are not just ornamental, but exhibits instead, a respect for the people who fostered a community and the tools that they used to do so. Afterall, a Sea Skiff and every boat like it may be a treat to ride in, but Tom Simmons was just trying to make a living.